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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, November 22, 2018

Meeting of the Parliament 22 November 2018

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Arthritis (Access to Work Scheme Survey), Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body Question Time, Energy Efficient Scotland, Scotland’s Economic Future and Economic Data, Decision Time, Correction


Contents


General Question Time


Universal Credit (Food Banks)

To ask the Scottish Government what information it has regarding the impact of universal credit on food banks in Scotland, in light of the Trussell Trust reporting an increase in its distribution of emergency supplies. (S5O-02590)

Universal credit takes money out of the pockets and food out of the mouths of some of the most vulnerable people in Scotland. Only last week, the United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights said that food bank use is up almost 400 per cent since 2012 and that food banks should not be stepping in to do the United Kingdom Government’s job.

The Trussell Trust has linked universal credit with an increase in demand for food banks. Demand is up 52 per cent where universal credit has been rolled out.

The Scottish Government has written to the new Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, to repeat our calls for the roll-out of universal credit to be halted as a matter of urgency.

Will the cabinet secretary join me in commending the invaluable work of food banks in Dundee, which have been stretched to capacity by the increasing impact of what the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights called “Universal Discredit”? There has been a 34 per cent increase in food bank use and a staggering 54 per cent increase in rent arrears across Dundee since last year. Does the cabinet secretary agree that the chancellor’s claim that we have reached the end of austerity is simply not credible, given those figures and the recent, scathing UN report, which utterly condemns these failures?

I commend the hard work that goes on in our communities, where people are supporting one another through exceptionally difficult times and times of crisis.

It is shameful that the UK Government continues to look the other way, despite mounting evidence and even an intervention from the UN. I highlighted the impact of universal credit on food bank use in my first answer. Evidence from the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities is that, on average, the arrears of people on universal credit are two and a half times those of people on housing benefit.

The evidence is clear: universal credit is causing stress, anxiety and increased rent arrears and debt in Scotland. That is why it must be stopped—and stopped now.


Universal Credit (Accessibility)

To ask the Scottish Government how accessible universal credit is for people with profound and multiple learning disabilities. (S5O-02591)

Universal credit’s digital-by-default approach makes it inaccessible for many people and might be a particular issue for people with profound learning disabilities and their families and carers. The results of the Department for Work and Pension’s own survey show that only 54 per cent of claimants can make a digital claim unassisted.

That is yet another example of universal credit failing the people who need it most and putting people at risk of not being able to access the financial support to which they are entitled. It is therefore vital that that issue—and many others—with universal credit are addressed before millions of people are migrated over to universal credit, beginning next year.

Adam is 18. He is blind and has no mobility. He has no means of communication and no capacity to make decisions. He is fed by means of a gastrostomy tube and requires support to keep his airways open—yet he and his mother have had to endure an interview, complete a multitude of forms and even obtain a sick note from his general practitioner. They have just learned that they must attend an assessment, at which Adam’s work capability will be evaluated.

Does the cabinet secretary agree that this inhumane system is causing untold distress and anguish to the most vulnerable people in our society and should be halted immediately by this uncaring Tory Government?

The member speaks eloquently about universal credit. I am very sorry to hear about the situation in which Adam finds himself through absolutely no fault of his own. I am sure that members of this Parliament hear equally awful stories in their surgeries, as individuals are forced through what is—quite frankly—an inhumane system, as Adam’s case has demonstrated to members today.

As I said in my answer to Shona Robison, there is absolutely no doubt that universal credit is failing some of the most vulnerable people in our society, including Adam. That is why we have written to the various Secretaries of State for Work and Pensions that we have had over the past 18 months. I wrote to Amber Rudd this week outlining the fundamental flaws of universal credit, particularly the example of digital by default. It is for that reason, as well as many others, that I have called once again on the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to halt the roll-out of universal credit.


Poverty

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to the findings of the United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, following his two-week inquiry into rising levels of poverty and the consequences of austerity measures. (S5O-02592)

The Scottish Government welcomed the visit of the United Nations special rapporteur to the United Kingdom. Professor Alston’s end-of-visit statement is a devastating critique of the UK Government’s

“punitive, mean-spirited, and often callous”

policies, and the suffering and hardship that they have caused.

The Scottish Government echoes Professor Alston’s call for the UK Government to stop denying the evidence. The hard reality is that one fifth of the UK population lives in poverty. Last year, 1.5 million people were reduced to destitution. That is an absolute scandal. Yet again, a UN expert has laid bare the UK Government’s failure to guarantee millions of its own citizens the most basic of human rights—food, shelter and dignity.

Does the cabinet secretary agree that the integration of human rights into and throughout Scottish Government policy—a direction that is the polar opposite of the UK Tory Government’s take on politics—will build an increasingly equitable society?

Human rights are at the heart of everything that the Scottish Government seeks to do, with all public authorities having a duty to respect, protect and fulfil human rights. That is why our new national performance framework has an explicit human rights outcome, supported by 31 human rights indicators. It is also why we are taking practical action to implement Scotland’s international human rights obligations.

For example, Scotland’s new social security system embeds human rights in its core legislative principles. Those principles go much further than simply warm words—every aspect of the new system has been developed in partnership with rights holders. We are designing a public service that meets their needs from the outset—a glimpse of the approach that Scotland can take when we are given the power and responsibility to deliver for the people of our country. That approach stands in complete contrast to the policies of the UK Government, which keeps its head buried in the sand about the everyday misery, hardship and despair that it continues to cause.

Is the cabinet secretary aware that the UN rapporteur’s report paid specific attention to the devastating impact of the UK Government’s policies on women’s lives, with women selling sex in order to pay for food and shelter, women—as the vast majority of single parents—facing significant hardship due to the two-child cap, and women making up the majority of pensioners, many of whom live in poverty?

In addition, Philip Alston specifically mentions the Scottish welfare fund. Of the thousands of households in Scotland receiving help from the fund, 54 per cent are single people and 22 per cent are single parents, but none of the Scottish Government data tells us whether those people are men or women. Why is the data not disaggregated by sex, disability or race to allow for more informed analysis of the take-up and reach of the Scottish welfare fund? That would help to ensure that it is effectively contributing to tackling the poverty that is faced by a disproportionate number of women in Scotland.

Absolutely—Elaine Smith is right to point out the gendered impact of UK welfare reform and austerity and the devastating, tragic and heartbreaking impact on too many women across Scotland and the UK.

We will always seek to do what we can around the Scottish welfare fund to ensure that it meets the needs of the people of Scotland—the people it is designed to help in the face of the cuts that we are facing.

We are spending £125 million to mitigate UK Government cuts this year, and £3.7 billion will be cut from the social security budget by 2020-21, which will be really difficult to mitigate sustainably. However, there were recommendations for the Scottish Government to make improvements to the way that we cope with welfare reforms, to ensure that we improve the system in Scotland. We will continue to engage with Elaine Smith on the issues that she raised around the gendered impact of welfare reforms and austerity.

I will continue the theme. The UN special rapporteur said that limiting benefit payments to two children was as “forced and physical” as China’s one-child policy. What does the cabinet secretary make of his assertion that the UK welfare system is so sexist it is as if it were compiled by

“a group of misogynists in a room”?

If all welfare benefits were devolved to Scotland, what would the Scottish Government do differently as a priority?

We would not have a rape clause or a two-child benefits cap. As I said in answer to Bill Kidd, the social security system that we have built in Scotland, which has been designed around dignity, respect and fairness, gives us a glimpse of what is possible when Scotland has the ability to cope and care for its people. That is one way in which we are currently delivering for the people of Scotland. If we had the full powers and competencies to ensure that we could care for everyone in our country, we would deliver a system that did not include things such as the inexcusable rape clause.


National Parks

To ask the Scottish Government what plans it has for the creation of new national parks. (S5O-02593)

There are no current plans to designate new national parks in Scotland.

Does the cabinet secretary agree that, in light of the widespread support revealed by the public engagement exercise carried out by the Galloway National Park Association, the time has come for the Scottish Government to consider initiating a formal consultation on a possible kingdom of Galloway national park?

As the member knows, there is an on-going conversation with people, not just from Galloway, but from other parts of Scotland where there are competing interests in having national parks. I know that the Minister for Rural Affairs and the Natural Environment was scheduled to meet the chairs of the Scottish Campaign for National Parks and the GNPA on Tuesday morning. That meeting had to be rescheduled.

I remind Mr Carson of some of the comments that I have made in the past, which are that there are financial considerations in all this. Not only have those financial considerations not gone away; if anything, they have been exacerbated.

Last week, I wrote to the minister about considering the establishment of a national park for Galloway. Given that national parks in Scotland have served the country well by providing their respective areas with an increase in visitor numbers, a growth in employment and a boost to the local and rural economies, as well as having a positive impact on wildlife conservation, will the minister commit to giving the prospect of a Galloway national park serious consideration?

As I indicated, we are happy to continue to engage on the Galloway National Park Association proposals, as we are doing with other communities that are also thinking about national parks. The minister intends to meet them to discuss their ideas. Any proposal would need to be assessed in the context of the real concerns around public finances and the costs that would be associated with new national parks.

Does the cabinet secretary not accept that the campaign for a Galloway national park is, in many ways, a campaign for equality across rural Scotland? The benefits of national parks should be not just for central and north Scotland, but all of Scotland, including the south, which is sadly all too often forgotten.

A strong economic case has been made for the whole idea of national parks. I am not entirely sure that I would characterise either of the two national parks as somehow being in the central belt. I assume that Colin Smyth does, because the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs national park extends as far south as Balloch, although I am not certain that people consider that to be the central belt. Both national parks are very rural and help the rural economy.

There are many other things being discussed in relation to the south of Scotland at the moment. The Scottish Government is committed to setting up a development agency in the south of Scotland, which is intended to bring economic benefits to the area.


Musical Instrument Tuition

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to reports that the number of pupils learning a musical instrument fell by over 1,000 between 2016-17 and 2017-18. (S5O-02594)

The Scottish Government recognises the value of instrumental music tuition to the wellbeing and attainment of young people and that, therefore, any reduction in take-up is a cause for concern. We are working with key partners to find ways to ensure that instrumental music tuition remains accessible to all.

Local authorities in Scotland are responsible for ensuring that all children and young people have access to the full curriculum, including the expressive arts. We are supporting local authorities by delivering a real-terms increase in revenue and capital funding in 2018-19.

The cabinet secretary might be aware that the two local authorities in my constituency—Midlothian Council and East Lothian Council—are named in the report as areas where hundreds of pupils are no longer registering for music lessons, following the introduction of charges. Can the cabinet secretary outline what support the Scottish Government can give both local authorities and pupils to ensure that that drop in uptake is arrested?

By coincidence, I was in Musselburgh grammar school yesterday when there was a fantastic orchestral performance by the school in advance of a meeting of the Scottish Education Council. However, one of the senior pupils made the point to me that the changes made by East Lothian Council were deterring individuals from taking up instrumental music tuition, and she was concerned about that. Mr Beattie therefore makes a fair point. There is a varied position on music tuition charging around the country, as a number of local authorities—those in Dundee, Edinburgh, the Western Isles, Glasgow, Orkney, Renfrewshire and West Dunbartonshire—apply no charge whatsoever for instrumental music tuition, while others do apply charges.

Individual local authorities need to take due account of the impact of those charges on the participation and involvement of young people, because all of us want to see young people able to take part in the expressive arts. A working group, led by the chair of the music education partnership group and bringing together representation from the Government and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, is actively considering ways to ensure that instrumental music tuition remains accessible.

Clearly, music tuition is very important and it is important that everybody, regardless of their background, is able to access it. Does the cabinet secretary accept that local authorities have had to cut their budgets by £1.5 billion since 2010 and that as a result of that we are seeing cuts hit music tuition and education, with teachers being under more and more pressure as a result of those cuts?

I do not think that it is nearly as straightforward as that, because the local authorities of Dundee, Edinburgh, the Western Isles, Glasgow, Orkney, Renfrewshire and West Dunbartonshire have decided that, within the current financial settlement, they can afford to pay for instrumental music tuition. They have made the choice to prioritise that, but other local authorities have not made that decision. Local authorities have to make those choices. The answer to it all does not rest with the Scottish Government: it rests with local authorities to take the right decision to support instrumental music tuition.


Purple Tuesday

To ask the Scottish Government, in light of the recent purple Tuesday, what action it is taking to support the improvement of retail experiences for disabled people. (S5O-02595)

We support the principle of accessibility that purple Tuesday is promoting and believe that retailers should focus on accessibility and inclusion all year round. Effective solutions to the problems and barriers faced by disabled people must be drawn from their lived experience. That is why the Scottish Government funds volunteer-led access panels to work with planning authorities and businesses to improve access in local communities. I strongly encourage retailers, councils and those promoting the economic development of local areas to involve disabled people and their organisations to improve accessibility and inclusion for all their customers.

I recently met a number of stakeholders in this area, including Scottish Red Cross, Disability Equality Scotland and Euan’s Guide, which all raise the issue of some unmet availability of mobility aids. Does the Scottish Government have any plans to introduce some additional measures to support those groups and to discuss the matter in detail with various retail groups?

I know that Liz Smith has had an on-going focus on this issue and she will understand that equality law recognises that bringing about equality for disabled people might mean changes in how services are delivered, providing extra equipment and/or the removal of physical barriers. That is a duty to make reasonable adjustments and it aims to ensure that a disabled person can use a service as close as is reasonably possible to the standard usually offered to a non-disabled person. As I said in my earlier answer, the Scottish Government funds access panels, which are groups of volunteers who work together to improve physical access to the built environment and wider social inclusion. As far as Euan’s Guide and other organisations are concerned, I am happy to meet with Liz Smith and those organisations in order to take forward some of the issues that they raise.


Abattoirs

To ask the Scottish Government how many abattoirs there are. (S5O-02596)

There are currently 25 approved red-meat slaughterhouses and three poultry-meat slaughterhouses in Scotland. There are also 16 approved establishments that handle wild game, and two authorised on-farm slaughter facilities for farmed game.

Many farmers and crofters in rural areas are faced with long journeys to get their animals slaughtered and butchered. What support can be given for local solutions, such as mobile abattoirs, co-operatives and farm butchery?

Speaking as a proud advocate for, and enthusiastic consumer of, high-quality Scotch beef, lamb and pork, such adequate provision is plainly vital. I am aware of Gail Ross’s strong interest in pursuing the matter for her constituents. I am happy to support any developments that are proposed and to work closely with Gail Ross in her campaigning efforts.